January 07, 2019

Alternative history: Nixon picks Rocky or Ronnie, not Jerry

In 1973, after Ted Agnew resigned as Nixon's Veep as part of his plea deal on his income tax evasion charges, Tricky Dick was the first president — and the only to date, of course — to exercise the portion of the 25th Amendment on filling a vice presidential vacancy.

We know he eventually picked Jerry Ford, of course.

But, he had two options besides that.

One was Nelson Rockefeller and the other was Ronald Reagan.

(Note: While my first counterfactual about Reagan running for the presidency was influenced by Bob Spitz's new Reagan bio, linked there, this one popped into mind several weeks ago when recently I read Evan Thomas' Nixon bio of a couple of years back.)

First, the actual history. How likely was Reagan to get it?

Not very.

Nixon still thought of him as an intellectual lightweight, just as he did at Bohemian Grove in 1967, when both were there and Nixon had the first inkling that California's new governor might run in 1968 for the presidency. Nixon retained that feeling into the 1980s, bombarding Reagan with Cabinet nomination and foreign policy suggestions. (Nixon strongly opposed George Schultz at State, which is part of why Reagan chose Al Haig for the spot originally; when Haig left, he smartly ignored Nixon the second time around.)

Ford was Nixon's favorite if nothing else for the reason that Nixon thought Congress would never think Ford capable of being president and thus wouldn't impeach him. WHY Nixon thought the man who had risen to be House Minority Leader would be thought incapable, Nixon never said, to the best of my knowledge.

Of the two who finished in the cold? Nixon personally liked Rocky, and thought better of him temperamentally, than Ronnie. But, he thought Congress would think Rocky could very much be president, and thus he would not be a counterweight, unlike what Nixon thought of Ford.

Anyway, to the counterfactual.

Nixon nominates Reagan. Congress knows he's an even more ardent Nixonite, if anything, than Ford. It knows his reputation as a hands-off governor. But it still hopes at this time that he won't be elevated to the top spot, and it knows he has no real ethics issues. He's confirmed no sweat.

Then, we get to Aug. 9, 1974, with actual history proceeding normally, and Ronald Wilson Reagan becomes the 38th, not the 40th, U.S. president. What happens?

First, at least as soon, if not sooner, than Ford did, he pardons Nixon. And does so with more unseemly language, claiming Nixon was victim of a witch-hunt, etc. This backfires with him even more than Ford's pardon did in reality.

Second, while not totally in the grip of voodoo economics, unlike 1980, he already is willing to listen to nutbar ideas in the dismal semi-science. He thinks a tax cut will help, which it might due to Keynesian reasons. He also thinks the budget needs to be balanced. He also also thinks that Nixon and Kissinger have been coddling the Russkies, that we need to stop SALT II, that we need to ramp up defense spending, and that we need to look at revising, or even jettisoning the ABM.

Reagan has no moderating James Baker as chief of staff. Nancy does get somebody better than Ed Meese to officially be in charge of day-to-day operations, but Meese, as in 1981 and beyond, is the eminence grise. In early 1975, Kissinger resigns, or is pushed.

This opens the floodgates to GOP challengers, who perceive Reagan as unbalanced, as having forfeited any honeymoon, and as politically vulnerable, as well as a possible boat anchor to Republican hopes. Bob Dole, Howard Baker and George H.W. Bush all jump in. So does the more moderate Charles Percy.

Reagan's old comments on making Social Security at least partially voluntary get dredged up in the media. Reagan "obligingly" doubles down on this shortly before the New Hampshire primary, served by a second-rate, and only quasi-official, campaign staff. (John Sears, having been given an advance tip to keep his powder dry and wait for official word, runs Percy's campaign when he announces.)

Reagan, though otherwise popular in New Hampshire, sees support crumble, with semi-next door Dole having already won (by plurality) the Iowa caucuses, followed by Percy, which has prompted other more moderate Republicans, like Charles Mathias, to either look at running or unifying behind Percy, the tacit candidate of the Rockefeller wing. Republican governors Bill Milliken and Jim Rhodes also make noises about favorite son candidacies.

Reagan can't get all the hardcore New Hampshire conservatives behind him. He does nail down Gov. Meldrim Thompson, but Dole, fresh off Iowa, convinces publisher-kingmaker William Loeb to, if not endorsing him, to at least offer no official endorsement.

Reagan wins by plurality in New Hampshire, but fails to break 30 percent. Dole and Percy both run strongly, followed by Baker. Bush, perceived as quasi-moderate at this time, can't break 10 percent, but vows to stay on until Texas.

Percy appears to have the Massachusetts primary wrapped up, and likely Vermont. Others won't contest his Illinois. So, focus goes to Florida, on March 9, and North Carolina, on March 23. Baker convinces Floridians he's the new moderate-conservative southern Republican that's needed, even as a counterweight to the surging Jimmy Carter. He wins there by plurality, with Dole and Percy in an essential draw for second. Reagan's Social Security comments have him finishing even behind Bush.

Reagan, with his Irish up, still hopes to pull out another win in North Carolina. But, despite Jesse Helms' backing, Baker does what he did in Florida. Dole is third and Bush fourth, with Percy focusing on April's Wisconsin race and beyond.

On March 31, 1976, eight years after LBJ did the same, Reagan withdraws.

Percy wins Wisconsin by majority and Pennsylvania by plurality. Bush finishes second to Baker in Texas, narrowly ahead of Dole. Dole pulls an upset in Indiana, edging both Percy and Baker. Baker wins Georgia.

Bush withdraws, and it's essentially a three-person race, outside of possible favorite sons.

With most primaries now leaving the South and going to the Midwest and West, Dole eyes making up ground, and he does.

However, Percy, with Dole and Baker splitting conservatives, takes winner-take-all California by plurality, enough to push him over the top for the nomination.

He names Baker his Veep choice.

Moderate to moderate-conservative Republicanism is rescued. Percy narrowly beats Carter in 1976, but winds up a one-term president. Presumably, the Shah's health, a Carter-like response by Percy, and the taking of hostages play out as they did in actuality.

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